Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

So many reasons to visit Valley Grove, especially in autumn October 13, 2021

The artful gated entrance to Valley Grove. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

I EXPERIENCE SOMETHING SACRED in this place. This preserved parcel of land where two aged churches rise atop a hill in rural Nerstrand.

Looking down the driveway from the hilltop church grounds, a beautiful view of the valley below. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

This is Valley Grove, among my most treasured local natural spaces to seek solitude. Beauty. Peace. And a feeling of sacredness that stretches beyond spiritual.

The newer of the two Valley Grove churches. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, Randy and I sat on the front steps of the 1894 white clapboard church eating a picnic lunch. Bothersome bees hovered, drawn by the sweetness of Randy’s soda and fruit-laced yogurt and homemade chocolate chip cookies.

Photographed from a side of the clapboard church, the limestone church a short distance away. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

A stone’s throw away across the lawn sits the 1862 limestone church, constructed in the year of the U.S.-Dakota Conflict raging many miles away to the west.

The cemetery offers history, art and a place for quiet contemplation against a beautiful natural backdrop. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.
An in-process gravestone rubbing. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.
I find gravestone engravings especially interesting and often touching. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

Valley Grove holds its own history as a community and spiritual gathering place for the area’s Norwegian immigrants. Walk the grounds of the cemetery next to the churches and you’ll read names of those of Norwegian ancestry. The cemetery remains well-used with new tombstones marking the passage of yet another loved one.

Information about Valley Grove is tucked inside a case on the side of the clapboard church. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

I have no personal connection to Valley Grove. But I hold a deep appreciation for the history, honored via the Valley Grove Preservation Society. That organization maintains and manages the church and grounds. And its a lovely, especially in autumn, acreage.

Farm sites and farmland surround Valley Grove. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

Once I’d finished my turkey sandwich and other picnic foods, I set out with my camera to document. The views from this hilltop site are spectacular. Farm land and farm sites, the low moo of a cow auditorily reminding me of this region’s agrarian base.

Conservation and legacy are valued at Valley Grove. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.
Remnants of the Big Woods remain and can be seen from Valley Grove. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.
Following the prairie path back to the church grounds, just over the hill. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

Tall dried prairie grasses frame nearly every view. Those who tend this land value its natural features of prairie and oak savanna. Paths lead visitors along prairie’s edge and onto the prairie to view distant colorful treelines, part of the Big Woods. The hilltop location offers incredible vistas.

On a mixed October afternoon of sun and clouds, a wildflower jolts color into the landscape. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

But up close is worth noting, too, especially the wildflowers.

An unexpected delight in the cemetery was an old-fashioned rosebush in full bloom. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

And in the cemetery I found an old-fashioned rosebush abloom in pink roses. Just like a rosebush that graced my childhood farm far away in southwest Minnesota where settlers and Native Peoples once clashed. I dipped my nose into blossom after blossom, breathing in the deep, perfumed, intoxicating scent.

Lots of wildflowers to enjoy. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

Spending time at Valley Grove, even when church doors are not open, seems sacred. I feel the peace of this rural location. The quiet. My smallness, too, within the vastness of sky and land and spires rising.

High on the hill…Valley Grove churches. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021.

To walk here, to sit on the front steps of a church on the National Register of Historic Places is to feel a sense of gratitude for those who came before us. For those who today recognize the value of sacredness and continue to preserve Valley Grove. Who understand that the spiritual stretches beyond church doors. To the land. To the memories of loved ones. And to future generations.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A country moment from southwestern Minnesota October 3, 2016

YOU KNOW YOU’RE in rural Minnesota when…

 

cattle-by-rock-dell-cemetery-123

 

…within feet of a country cemetery, a fenced-in cow saunters past a mounded grave graced with flowers.

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Photo taken on October 1, 2016, Rock Dell Lutheran Church, rural Belview, Minnesota.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

In Cannon City: A grassroots Americana commemoration of Memorial Day May 31, 2016

The entrance to the Cannon City Cemetery is decorated for Memorial Day.

The entrance to the Cannon City Cemetery is decorated for Memorial Day.

THERE’S A CERTAIN SENSE of comfort in tradition. For nearly 100 years, folks have gathered each Memorial Day at the Cannon City Cemetery to honor our veterans.

This shows a portion of those gathered for Monday's semi-formal program.

This shows a portion of those gathered for Monday’s semi-formal program.

In the shade of spruce and cedar trees and surrounded by gravestones, I listened to natives read The Gettysburg Address, Freedom, What Heroes Gave and more; recite In Flanders Fields; and recall the history of this celebration. A Civil War veteran initially asked students from the village school to put on a Memorial Day program. In those early years, pupils marched from the school to the cemetery bearing floral wreaths. Today the cemetery board organizes this annual observance.

Mel Sanborn, left, emceed the program.

Mel Sanborn, left, emceed the program.

Song sheets were distributed to those in attendance and then collected to save for next year.

Song sheets were distributed to those in attendance and then collected to save for next year.

Don, on the guitar, and Judy Chester lead the singing.

Don, on the guitar, and Judy Chester lead the singing.

We sang patriotic songs like The Star Spangled Banner, The Battle Hymn of the Republic, and America the Beautiful, some accompanied by a guitar, some not. Voices rose 40-plus strong above the shrill of a cardinal and the distant muffle of gunfire. Sun shone. Breeze rippled.

A bronze star marks a veteran's grave.

A bronze star marks a veteran’s grave.

The Cannon City Cemetery offers an ideal setting for a grassroots remembrance of those who have served our country. Therein lies its appeal to me.

Giving the history of and then reciting In Flanders Fields.

Giving the history of and then reciting In Flanders Fields.

I have no connection to this place where nearly 50 veterans are buried. But this ceremony reminds me of the Memorial Day programs of my youth. As an aging senior recited In Flanders Fields, I mouthed the words I recited so many years ago on the stage of the Vesta Community Hall.

Fields surround the cemetery.

Fields surround the cemetery where American flags marked veterans’ graves on Memorial Day.

In its peaceful location among farm fields, this cemetery reminds me of home. Of tradition.

Sam Wilson ends the program by playing taps.

Sam Wilson ends the program by playing taps.

And when taps sounded, I was reminded, too, of just how much some sacrificed so that I could stand here, in this cemetery, on Memorial Day, hand across heart reciting The Pledge of Allegiance.

Cannon City native Bob Lewis is a fixture at the annual Memorial Day program. Locals are already tapping his historical knowledge in preparation for the 150th anniversary celebration.

Cannon City native Bob Lewis is a fixture at the annual Memorial Day program. Locals are already tapping his historical knowledge in preparation for the 150th anniversary celebration in 2017.

FYI: Next year the Cannon City Cemetery turns 150 years old. Plans are already underway for a special celebration to mark the occasion. If you want to experience grassroots Americana on Memorial Day, this is the place to be.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Remembering Brittney at a rural Faribault cemetery May 5, 2015

HUNDREDS OF TIMES during the past 30 years, I’ve passed North Grove Cemetery along busy Minnesota Highway 3 between Faribault and Northfield.

The entrance to North Grove Cemetery, which sits along Minnesota Highway 3 north of Faribault. The building once housed a church.

The entrance to North Grove Cemetery, which sits along Minnesota Highway 3 north of Faribault. The building once housed a church.

Not once have I stopped to explore this final resting place sheltered by trees butting a small white church. You know how it is. If you pass something often enough, you fail to notice it after awhile.

The flash of red that caught my eye.

The flash of red that caught my eye.

That is until recently, when a flash of red in a corner of the cemetery caught my eye. My husband, whose vision is far superior to mine, managed to read the words—WE LOVE u BRittnEY—on the handcrafted sign cornered with four red hearts.

There was no time to tour the graveyard that day. But on a recent Saturday, we stopped.

The memorial to Brittney Landsverk.

The memorial to Brittney Landsverk.

In this small Norwegian cemetery, I found an abundance of markers for Oles and Sophias who died long ago. But my focus was on the corner memorial created for 20-year-old Brittney Rose Landsverk. Five years have passed already since her April 2, 2010, tragic death flooded my community of Faribault with grief.

Brittney drowned after the young man she was dating drove a car in which she was a passenger into the nearby Cannon River. Mitchell Bongers would later admit to drinking, plead guilty to criminal vehicular homicide and receive a four-year prison sentence.

A loving, permanent tribute to Brittney.

A loving, permanent tribute to Brittney.

I cannot fathom the agony Ron and Kelly Landsverk endured while searchers looked for their daughter’s body in the twisting Cannon River. Eighty-seven days of wondering and waiting. And then, a life-time of grief at the loss of their only child.

Words of love for Brittney expressed.

Words of love for Brittney expressed.

I don’t know the Landsverk family. But I am a mother and a part of the Faribault community. That is enough to connect me to them. When a child dies in such a senseless and tragic way, the impact is far-reaching. It touches all of us.

Visitors to Brittney's memorial can write a message on the bench.

Visitors to Brittney’s memorial can write a message on the bench.

Visiting Brittney’s memorial, I got a sense of who she was, what she loved, how much she was loved/is still loved and missed.

Items attached to a fence  reveal more about Brittney.

Items attached to a fence reveal more about Brittney.

She was a young woman who apparently liked Cheetos and Mountain Dew, Hello Kitty and butterflies.

Brittney's memorial is next to her grandparents' grave.

Brittney’s memorial is next to her grandparents’ grave.

Born in South Korea, Brittney Rose arrived in her parents’ arms on May 1, 1990. She is named after her paternal grandmother, Rose. Brittney’s memorial is located next to Rose and husband Kenneth’s gravesite.

Roses abound, including these on the fence.

Roses abound, including these on the fence.

Roses grace the memorial. The flowers seem symbolic beyond honoring Brittney Rose’s name. To me they also represent that adage, “Stop and smell the roses.” We never know when the roses may cease to bloom, when their sweet scent will merely linger in the memory of our days.

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Click here to read my first post on North Grove Cemetery.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

With gratitude & loving remembrance on Good Friday April 3, 2015

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St. Michael's Cemetery, Buckman, MN. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo, August 2012.

Christ crucified sculpture, St. Michael’s Cemetery, Buckman, MN. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo, August 2012.

Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.–     Hebrews 12:2

Photo copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Feeling unsettled in a rural Minnesota cemetery June 12, 2014

A TIME EXISTED when I avoided cemeteries. I was young then, unappreciative of their value from an artistic, historical and personal perspectives. And, if I’m honest, I’ll admit that I felt a bit afraid walking atop graves.

My thoughts have changed. Whenever my husband and I happen across a rural cemetery, we’ll often stop and wander.

The aged Eklund Cemetery sits among farm fields in Walcott Township.

The aged Eklund Cemetery sits among farm fields in Walcott Township.

We did just that recently while in section 25 of Walcott Township in southeastern Rice County. This Minnesota township was named in honor of Samuel Walcott, an early, enthusiastic settler from Massachusetts. He returned to the East “after…his mind became distraught and he found an abiding place in an insane retreat in his native State.”

Randy, whose vision far surpasses mine, spotted the small final resting place along County Road 90, headed toward it and pulled into a field drive as no other parking exists.

The unassuming entry to the Eklund Cemetery.

The entry to the Eklund Cemetery, which sits almost on top of the road.

Now I’ve explored many a country cemetery. But I’ve never had to step over a double stretch of chains to enter. That should have been my first clue that the Eklund Cemetery would trouble me.

The old dates impressed me.

The old dates impressed me.

I felt almost instantly uncomfortable here as I meandered among aged tombstones marking the graves of early settlers like Hans Flom, born in 1826. There are 143 people buried at Eklund, including five with the Eklund surname.

The first burial here, of one-month-old Annie B.O. Sam, occurred after her February 28, 1884, death, according to the Dalby Database (a remarkable online collection of cemetery and other historical info compiled by Faribault residents John and Jan Dalby). A few months later, the 17-month-old daughter (listed only as “baby”) of Christ and Julie Davidson was buried here.

Such long ago dates impress me.

Weeds flourish among the weathered tombstones.

Weeds flourish among the weathered tombstones.

But I was unimpressed by the condition of the cemetery where dandelions and creeping Charlie and other weeds flourish in the too tall grass. Perhaps frequent rains have kept the caretaker away.

A fence separates graveyard from fields.

A fence separates graveyard from fields.

No matter, it was not the unkempt lawn that bothered me as much as the sunken graves, the marked depressions in the earth that show the precise spots of burials. When my husband remarked that vaults were not used back in the day, my concern increased. As foolish as it seems, I worried about suddenly sinking into a grave. And I’ve seldom felt that way before in a cemetery.

Eklund Cemetery, Ingeborg's gravestone

Eklund Cemetery, Nels Nelson gravestone

Eklund Cemetery, Palrud gravestone

I hurried my tour, distracting myself by noticing the abundance of Norwegians names like Hans, Ingeborge, Nels and Erik, middle name Ole.

The most unusual name I noticed.

The most unusual name I noticed.

This cemetery once served Eklund (or Egelund) Evangelical Norwegian Lutheran Church, disbanded in 1957. That steepleless church building now sits off Minnesota State Highway 60 on Faribault’s east side, according to information written by Helga Sam Thompson. Its current use is that of a chiropractic office.

A close-up of a time-worn, weathered tombstone.

A close-up of a time-worn, weathered tombstone.

In one particular spot in the cemetery, I noticed a patch of black earth the size of a grave. Just dirt, unheaped, no grass, with weeds beginning to edge into the soil. No marker marked the spot. Again, that uncomfortable feeling settled upon me. The last burial here, of Bernard C. Sam, happened in 2011. Prior to that, the most recent burial, of 22-year-old Matthew David Caron, occurred in 1997.

Someone still cares about a loved one buried here.

Someone still cares about a loved one buried here.

Shortly thereafter, Randy plucked an errant plastic flower petal from the ground, fallen from a gravestone cross. I advised him to leave the orchid colored bloom there. He did.

Nature leaves her signature on an in-ground grave marker.

Nature leaves her signature on an in-ground grave marker.

I wanted nothing from this cemetery. Nothing.

FYI: If you are into genealogy and/or history, visit the Dalby Database which includes a remarkable collection of 2.5 million records and increasing daily. Click here to read a summary of what you can find on this website. And then click here to reach the Dalby Database. John and Jan Dalby of Faribault were given the Minnesota Genealogical Society’s Pioneer Explorer Award in 2010.

Special thanks to John Dalby for providing me with links to information about Eklund Cemetery and church and Walcott Township histories.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Buried in snow March 26, 2013

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I WANTED TO VISIT his grave, touch the cold stone with my gloved hands, allow my eyes to linger on his name, to remember my dad, dead 10 years now on April 3.

A trip back to my hometown to visit my mom had thrown me into a temporary melancholy mood as I lounged on her loveseat, head crooked into a pillow, legs angled up as we talked about aging and death and funerals (too many recently).

When I mentioned that I’d often thought about the safety layers of generations separating me from death, my husband glanced at me like I was crazy. My 80-year-old mom understood, though.

The road past the Vesta Cemetery, which sits just outside of this southwestern Minnesota town of some 330.

The road past the Vesta Cemetery, left, which sits just outside of this southwestern Minnesota town of some 330. You can see a portion of Vesta’s grain complex to the right.

Later, she stayed back at her house while Randy and I drove out to the cemetery, to honor my dad whose gravesite I do not visit often enough because busyness and blizzards have kept me from the prairie in recent months.

We headed north out of town along Cemetery Road, tires crunching on gravel, toward the cemetery edged by evergreen trees. At my feet, the short black snowboots I’d borrowed from my mom bumped against my legs.

Some of the gravestones are barely peeking out of the snow.

Some of the gravestones are barely peeking out of the snow.

I wondered aloud whether the cemetery roads would be plowed of snow swept in by prairie winds. A few blocks later I spotted waves of snow washing over tombstones and roadways. I could not reach my dad’s grave without snowshoes or a snowmobile.

The closest I would get to my dad's grave was viewing the cemetery through t

The closest I would get to my dad’s grave was viewing the cemetery through the van windows.

We eased past the cemetery, drove down to the first farm place to the north, turned around in the driveway and crept past the cemetery again, back into town.

I carried my mom’s boots inside, snugged them into a corner of her kitchen, before reclaiming my place on her loveseat.

I told her about the tombstones buried in snow. Then we talked about dad’s funeral—the bitter cold of that April day, the cutting wind.

And I remembered, although I did not speak this, how I’d perched on a hard folding chair in that hilltop cemetery 10 years ago, leaned toward my mother shivering in cold and in grief, and wrapped my arm around her.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling